Along with Slovenia, Croatia is my favourite tourism destination is Europe. The reason is quite straightforward – over 45 years it has never let me down.
Since gaining independence in 1995, the country has worked hard to create a fresh approach to tourism and has succeeded through innovation, using its natural and cultural assets to competitive advantage by recognising the importance of tourism to normalising life and the economy.
Despite its obvious historical appeal to mass tourism, Croatia is steering a different course shaped by a strong and focused tourism masterplan and, political leaders who understand the needs of the industry.
Within Croatia, one of the most appealing destinations has to be Istria – a 3,600 sq km heart-shaped peninsula in the north, 50 km south of Trieste. The coast has traditionally been the focus of tourist activity with its historic towns such as Pula, Porec and Rovinj and the resorts of Umag and Novigrad. The Istrian interior is characterised by medieval hilltop villages set amongst rolling country and forests – a region that lost almost 90 per cent of its population, who exited during the four years of war from 1991 – 1995.
Istria is now leading the re-invention and has become the epitome of a successful transformation in Croatian tourism. It too is driven by an enlightened masterplan which closely follows the themes of the national strategy with the key ‘actors’ realising that quality and unique visitor experiences are the key to achieving a competitive advantage in the market.
One of the industry leaders, Maistra Ltd – the most substantial tourism and hospitality company in the region – is changing the face of tourism in the area, with a series of design-led hotels.
INVESTING IN DESIGN
Maistra is the hospitality arm of the Adris Group and was formed in 2005 following the successful merger of two local Istrian tourism companies.
Today Maistra owns and manages a portfolio of nine hotels and eight resort complexes in Istria in the towns of Rovinj and Vrsar. In 2014, Maistra acquired the Hilton Imperial Hotel in Dubrovnik, which is now operated by Hilton.
Over recent years the company has invested over €400m to create premium hotels. The elegant five star Monte Mulini and the 248-room design-focused Lone Hotel allowed Maistra to introduce two global brands to Istria – Leading Hotels of the World and Design Hotels. Other investments have followed with the renovation of the environment at Lone Bay; the refurbishment of the Adriatic Hotel and the opening of family hotel Amarin under the Kinder Hotel Brand.
The Grand Park Hotel Rovinj – which replaces the old Hotel Park in Rovinj – represents the single biggest tourist investment by Maistra so far, and one of the largest investments in tourism since Croatian independence. Croatian investment firm the Adris Group is the project’s investor, and is also investing heavily to update Maistra’s remaining hotel stock to four and five star.
Maistra has enlisted the help of Croatian architecture and urban planning studio 3LHD and Italian designer Pierro Lissoni to create the five star hotel, which is due to open next spring. Facing the marina, the six level hotel has been built into the natural slope, and offers views of the sea and of old town. The ‘cascading’ design of the hotel means that the entrance, lobby and the swimming pools are on the sixth floor, and many of the buildings are camouflaged with greenery.
The hotel will feature 193 rooms and 16 suites, several of which will have a private sauna and plunge pool, a sunbathing area and a garage. The hotel also features several bars and restaurants, a two-level 3,800sq m spa (the largest of its kind in Istria), and an indoor pool and three outdoor pools on the top floor of the building.
“When designing the hotel, our goal was to have all the facilities focused on the spectacular views of the sea, of Rovinj’s old town and of the green island of Katarina,” says 3LHD’s Silvije Novak.
“At the same time, to secure a suitable view of the hotel from Rovinj, we needed to incorporate the hotel’s volume in the existing Golden Cape Park Forest. That’s why the building was adapted to the slope of the terrain and why we’ve designed a ‘cascading hotel’, with the main entrance and the hotel lobby on the highest, sixth level.
“At the front of the hotel, there are five pine trees, and the greenery that will be planted on the terraces and roofs will provide the guests with a sense of being surrounded by nature.”
The project also involves the creation of new public spaces along the adjacent seaside promenade.
“The areas alongside the promenade are intended to be the new spaces for urban life and meetings – a point which connects the old town’s urban fabric with the tourist and park spaces of the Monte Mulini zone,” says 3LHD. “A relaxing atmosphere is created by water surfaces, choice of paving and greenery, thus framing particular content zones and making the whole area attractive and accessible.”
The hotel features a spacious lobby at its core, which overlaps with a two storey restaurant and ‘sunset terrace’. It also features a ‘Secret Room’ – the only room without a view – which will be used as a gallery displaying art pieces and new technologies, as well asa private meetings. It’s due to open in spring 2019.
THE HOTEL ADRIATIC
Maistra also teamed up with 3LHD for the reinvention of the historic Hotel Adriatic, which originally opened in 1892. It began life as a coffee shop, then a ‘pied-a-terre,’ before becoming a hotel in 1913. During WW2 it become a German command centre. In 1952 tourists returned to Istria and Jadran – a city-run hospitality company – re-established the Adriatic as a 45 room hotel. This was short-lived, as after just two years Jadran made the building their offices. It was not until the late 1970s that it returned to being a hotel becoming a focal point for artists, writers and poets throughout the 1980s.
Recently, Maistra decided it was time to bring the Hotel Adriatic back to life.
“We had a vision for the Adriatic but it was blurry and took time to crystallise,” explains Tomislav Popovic, president of the management board of Maistra Ltd. “Together with architects 3LHD we brainstormed.
The ideation process took almost two years and then the big idea came over drinks at a bar – a hotel filled with original artworks created for the hotel itself. The reaction of many in the industry was cautious and and there were a lot of raised eyebrows.
“Our intention was to create a hotel that would make guests aware of the vibrant arts history of the town. At the beginning we didn’t want to take risks with the hotel but we actually ended up doing something very risky.
The result is amazing and it proved how important it is to have an open mind during the creative process.”
This is more than a hotel with an outstanding art collection; it’’s a hotel where the art fashioned the whole experience of the hotel. “It was the rebirth of the hotel that gave birth to the art,” explains Popvi.
The art collection was curated specifically for Maistra by Croatian art specialist Vanja Žanko, who commissioned 14 visual artists to create Adriatic-specific work, ensuring that each of the hundred in-situ installations are organically tied to the buildinga and the location.
With the original detail and spirit of the hotel being maintained, the interior has been reinvented to create 18 luxury bedrooms and suites, along with contemporary bars, restaurants and outdoor spaces.
“We needed to create an experience,” says Silvije Novak, partner at 3HLD . “We decided to play with the paradigm of the hotel, creating a different type of space – in this case a gallery allowing us to treat guests to an experience they typically wouldn’t expect at a hotel. The idea was to transform the everyday into an illusion; a place of metamorphosis.”
Professor Terry Stevens is managing director of Stevens & Associates